Animal Shelter's New Building
The Aiken County Animal Shelter will soon have a new building devoted to adoption, humane education and dog socialization. The new PAWS building (“Primary learning, Adoption Wellness and Socialization”) is under construction now and is expected to be completed sometime in January. The project was initiated by Friends of the Animal Shelter Aiken (FOTAS) which raised the majority of the funds for the building. In addition to rooms for meet and greets, education, dog training and indoor activities, the PAWS building will also house a cat colony room with an attached outdoor “catio.”
“This building is something that we have wanted since day one, but when the shelter was built, we did not have the money to do it,” said Jennifer Miller, who is the founder and president of FOTAS. FOTAS works together with the Aiken County Animal Shelter in a public/private partnership that has gained national recognition as a model for how open admission shelters in high intake areas can save lives and improve animal welfare. FOTAS was founded in 2009 and its efforts have been multi-pronged. They have included fundraising to construct a new shelter, supplementing local adoptions and organizing and implementing a transport program to allow Aiken County animals to be adopted in other parts of the country, promoting and funding spay and neuter and much more. FOTAS’s efforts have been successful, taking the shelter’s euthanasia rate of over 90% in 2008 to a save rate of over 90% today. In fact, at the end of its first ten years, FOTAS accomplished its original mission: never again having to euthanize an adoptable cat or dog for space.
These days, FOTAS has expanded its mission: the goal now is to make the shelter a resource, rather than a destination. The idea is that the shelter will be able to provide the tools necessary to ensure that animals that have homes can stay in them; that those that need new homes can find them; and that affordable and accessible spay and neuter services will bring a halt to the longstanding pet overpopulation problem in the county and beyond.
According to Jennifer Miller, the new building will be a valuable tool in that mission. One major thing that it will do is to provide a quiet and private place for prospective adopters to meet an animal that they are interested in.
“Say Mrs. Jones sees a dog she wants to adopt,” said Jennifer. “If we take that dog out to the play yard, the dog is going to be excited, it’s going to be running around, sniffing the grass, and Mrs. Jones is going to think ‘that dog doesn’t like me,’ and the adoption isn’t going to happen.” The new building will have two comfortable rooms with furnishings provided by Folly, a shop in downtown Aiken, where adopters can get to know dogs in a home-like setting without noise and distractions.
The main part of the PAWS building will consist of a large open room that can be used for dog socialization and training sessions which are an important enrichment activity for shelter animals, as well as a way to make them more adoptable.
“The more skill sets the dogs have, the easier they are to find homes for,” said Jennifer, noting that everything they do is geared toward reducing an animal’s length of stay at the shelter. The big room will also be used for indoor play groups during inclement weather, and it has been designed to facilitate meet and greets between a prospective adopter’s resident dog and a shelter dog to make sure that the animals get along before an adoption takes place.
Perhaps most important, the new building will provide a convenient place for humane education and for the Junior FOTAS program, which has grown immensely in the past few years. “We are doing something with the schools every week,” said Jennifer. “We teach them about heartworm prevention, spay neuter, humane care. We have the Dog Ears Reading program, where the kids read to the dogs in their kennels. But until now, we haven’t had a place to run other programs in the shelter. So this new building will be a learning center.
“At the shelter, it can seem like taking a broom and sweeping back the ocean,” continued Jennifer. “We had over 4,700 animals come in here last year. That’s down from about 6,000 years ago, but it’s still too much. And we ask, how do we prevent animals from having to come in here? So we have spay and neuter and TNR [trap-neuter-return] for cats. We help low income people keep their pets with a monthly community pet food drive. We work with animal control to get animals in the county off chains. And when we talk about the shelter becoming a resource and not a destination, that’s out future. And the way we are going to get there is with the kids, so the junior programs are really important.”
Seed money for the new PAWS building came from two major legacy gifts, with additional donations from members of the community and a commitment from the county. Most of the money that FOTAS raises goes towards its programs – transfer, heartworm treatment and prevention, spay and neuter and so on. Donations are always appreciated, and the other major need for FOTAS is always more volunteers and fosters.
“We are so appreciative of our volunteers. We couldn’t do any of this without them,” said Jennifer. “We are just so lucky to have them. But we could always use more volunteers and fosters. If you take a dog in foster I always say you are saving two lives: the one you are fostering and another one at the shelter who gets to move onto the adoption floor. If you want to come to walk a shelter dog, there are no barriers – you have an orientation and then you can come whenever you like. Animals live in the present. If you can make one dog’s present happy for 15 minutes, that’s a good thing.”
For more information on FOTAS or to volunteer, foster or adopt, visit fotasaiken.org.